The National Interest / THE BUZZ
By: Harry J. Kazianis
While world leaders gathered in China for the G-20 summit, Asia hands the world over, especially here in Washington, D.C., seemed preoccupied with another breaking news event (and no, we aren’t talking about the drama surrounding President Obama’s strange red carpet snub or National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s awkward moment on the tarmac—we could only be so lucky).
Sadly, it seems Beijing has leveraged the G-20 to remind the world that not only has it risen to the level of global superpower, but that it has the right to alter the status quo in a highly contested part of East Asia that is clearly a powder keg, just waiting for the match to be lit.
Beginning Friday morning EST, social media feeds began circulating a report in the New York Times indicating China had massed vessels around Scarborough Shoal, a group of rocks approximately 150 miles off the coast off the main islands of The Philippines. While controversial—but also a near constant act of Chinese aggression for several years—this time something was different. Reports indicated that possibly troop ships as well as barges—barges that could be used for dredging, the first steps in turning unassuming rocks into islands and then military outposts, something China has done time and time again in the South China Sea—were now parked near the Shoal. Philippines President Duarte wants answers and has summoned the Chinese Ambassador.
Unfortunately for the new Philippine President, he already knows that whatever explanation the Chinese ambassador offers won’t matter. China has made the slick calculation that the time is now if it is going to solidify its hold on Scarborough. If turned into a military outpost, it will only enhance Beijing’s surveillance capabilities throughout the South China Sea, not only giving China a greater foothold where $5.3 trillion dollars of seaborne trade passes every year, but surely the final step before Beijing declares an Air-Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ. At that point, China’s control over the South China Sea, one of the most economically vital waterways in the world, would be nearly complete.
But we can’t say we weren't’ warned. Foreign policy experts the world over have been documenting since the early 2000s the increasing scope and intensity of China's aggressive actions throughout the Asia-Pacific and now stretching into the larger Indo-Pacific region. One specific commentator, Robert C. O’Brien, a former advisor to not one, not two but three Republican presidential candidates, in multiple essays for various publications, lays out a prophetic body of evidence that China’s economic and military rise combined with dangerous actions that challenge Asia’s peaceful status-quo would have wide global ramifications. His new book, While America Slept, a timely collection of essays of O’Brien’s work over the last several years, should serve as essential reading for those who are not only interested in the dangers of a rising China, but where American foreign policy during the Obama years has failed to reinforce Washington’s interests around the globe.
While the book itself delves into issues of U.S. domestic politics, ISIS, the greater challenges in the Middle East and beyond, being someone who is fascinated with all things Asia as well as the state of America’s armed forces, there were two parts of the work that were clearly my favorites and of certain value to Asia watchers and defense experts. First, as noted above, is O’Brien’s analysis when it comes to the troublesome actions of China over the last several years. In multiple essays for The Diplomat, O’Brien lays out the challenge before the U.S. foreign policy community back in 2011:
“As the United States and Asian nations now consider the implications of China’s massive naval buildup and expansive territorial claims in the Pacific, they must do so in light of China’s proven willingness to use its armed forces as a means to enforce such claims. The list of incidents at sea involving the PLA Navy, Air Force and auxiliary forces is especially remarkable in that the confrontations have taken place during a period in which the U.S. Navy has been dominant in the region.
As the PLA Navy continues its impressive growth, and as the United States Navy shrinks as a result of significant cuts in American defense spending, it’s quite possible that Chinese-initiated confrontations will increase if the PLA Navy determines that the balance of forces in the region has tilted in China’s favor. Indeed, China’s party-controlled press seems to foreshadow such a situation…”
Indeed, O’Brien also was one of the first in non-academic or peer reviewed presses to spell out the dangers presented by China’s fearsome anti-access/area-denial, or A2/AD challenge, which has only grown more deadly since O’Brien penned the below analysis five years ago:
“A key goal of China’s maritime build-up is access denial. While multifaceted, China is building its access denial strategy around two backbone platforms: the DF-21D (Dong Feng) anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), described as a ‘Carrier Killer,’ and an ever expanding and modern attack submarine fleet. US Navy Pacific Commander Adm. Robert F. Willard has characterized the DF-21D as already having reached the Initial Operational Capability stage of development, meaning that they are operable, but not yet necessarily deployable. Taiwan sources report that China has already deployed at least 20 ASBMs. Whether deployed now or in the near future, the US Navy believes China already has the space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, command and control structure, and ground processing capabilities necessary to support DF-21D employment. China also employs an array of non-space based sensors and surveillance assets capable of providing the targeting information necessary to employ the DF-21D.”
At the same time, only making matters worse, the U.S. Navy has been downsized dramatically, impacting Washington’s ability to offer a clear deterrent against Beijing’s bold moves in recent years. Here O’Brien spells out the challenge in a widely cited article for Politico Magazine last year:
“...We have a crisis in the fleet, and serious contenders on both sides of 2016 should have a plan for fixing it—and fast. Today, at 284 warships, the United States Navy’s fleet is the smallest since World War I. But even that number probably overstates the Navy’s true capability: The Pentagon recently changed the rules by which it counts active warships and if you apply the traditional and more stringent method, the Navy has but 274 warships. Given sequestration, the fleet will continue to decline...
The Obama administration’s failure to stem the Navy’s decline comes amid recent reports that China’s PLA Navy will surpass the U.S. Navy in the total number of warships by 2020—a troubling imbalance since the Chinese navy is concentrated heavily in the South China Sea, whereas ours is spread around the entire globe. Russia has also embarked on a naval modernization program focusing on new submarines and destroyers. It is also expanding or building new naval bases in the Arctic, Pacific and Black Sea. Russia and China have both invested heavily in asymmetrical anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities to deter the United States Navy from approaching waters near their shores. As the Navy gets smaller, the world’s oceans are becoming more dangerous.
Due to budget cuts and the follow on threat of sequestration, the carrier fleet will likely shrink from the Congressionally- mandated eleven to ten or even lower.”
The danger here is quite obvious, with America’s Navy spread thin around the world, how can Washington effectively ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ to Asia with a smaller footprint? Is Beijing all that worried that Washington will really run to the rescue of its allies when we are taking parts off museum pieces to ensure our carrier-based aircraft fly (almost symbolically, the part didn’t even work) or that the simple readiness of our armed forces has atrophied to near-crisis levels? The simple answer, as Beijing’s actions at Scarborough demonstrate, is a clear no—and all the more reason to read O’Brien’s book.
Harry J. Kazianis, as of September 12th, will become the new Director of Defense Studies at The Center for the National Interest. He is the author of The Tao of A2/AD: China’s Rationale for the Creation of Anti-Access and editor and co-author of the report Tackling Asia’s Greatest Challenges: A U.S.-Japan-Vietnam Trilateral Report. Kazianis is also returning to his previous role as Executive Editor of The National Interest.